In the comment section following the last post, a fruitful dialogue sprang up between Matt (the author of the post) and Cheryl, a reader. In a comment following his post, Matt admonished us (addicts, ex and otherwise) to remain aware of our vulnerabilities (like fluctuating willpower, loss of perspective), to not get too cocky, to continue to remind ourselves that we still think and feel and even act like an addict. Cheryl’s response was a sort of call to arms in the other direction — an invitation to shut down the voices of self-doubt and take stock of our strengths instead. To trust in those strengths, to dive into that pool of self-trust without looking back. These approaches to recovery sound almost diametrically opposed. Yet it seems to me there is some crucial truth in the space between (or stretching to include) both of them. In fact, this could be one of those magical tensions. Like wave-particle duality, or the impossibility of life without death, or the fact that humans are both totally selfish and totally altruistic — the kind of tension that gets you thinking more deeply about a topic than any one perspective ever could.
The sort of self-trust that Cheryl mentions is, I think, similar to what I was trying to emphasize in several posts, including this one, nearly a year ago. I was pointing to a special kind of power in self-trust that turns up its nose at the reminders of past failures, to the shame and guilt that go with them, and to the moralistic (and sometimes, hate to say it, but realistic) judgements of others, those judgements that bounce round and round inside our minds in self-defeating rumination. That kind of total self-trust is a lot like hope, in that it’s at least partly irrational, maybe even deluded in the grand scheme of things, but absolutely essential to moving forward, potently, effectively, without looking back, eradicating that massive tangle of self-defeating habits in one giant twist rather than a bunch of little adjustments.
And yet — hey, we’re not idiots! — after what we’ve been through (i.e., addiction) we’ve learned a thing or two. We know the value of staying on top of the little things, continuing to evaluate just how vulnerable we might be in certain contexts (like the aftermath of rejection or loss, driving past a particular neighborhood) and situations (like parties, especially when things get a little late) where the dangers lurk. Even little dangers, because they can easily blow up into big dangers. We’ve learned to remain cautious so that we can avoid those dangers before they spring up in front of us. Like a dog suddenly caught in the headlights of a speeding car, it’s too late for the dog, given that we didn’t start slowing down half a block away. This view has a lot in common with the concept of “self-programming” that I got into a few posts ago, and that Jeff Skinner and Shaun Shelly have also remarked on in different ways.
I quote my esteemed self from that post:
Proximal intentions don’t matter. By the time you are getting close to the point of action, the dye is already cast. Setting up intentions in advance is called “self-programming” by [a philosopher named…] Slors, and I think that’s a great name for it. You are indeed programming your own future, by changing contingencies, determining circumstances, setting up non-negotiable outcomes. You are programming your life, and your brain, and your environment…
As Matt says, it is really crucial to stay ahead of the game, i.e., to adjust your speed, or pick a different route, before you hit the dog, before the urge (and/or the opportunity) to use is staring you right in the face.
Come to think of it, both those strategies — total self-trust and vigilant self-monitoring — so seemingly opposite, are resolutions to the fundamental problem of delay discounting…or to put it more colorfully, the problem of being stuck in our over-the-top attraction to the IMMEDIATE FUTURE, at the expense of long-term contentment. If you’ve followed this blog, you might remember how I went on about the role of dopamine — which geysers in our nucleus accumbens when addictive “rewards” become present, possible, available. I claimed that an unfortunate side-effect of dopamine is to exaggerate the (perceived) value of immediate rewards (e.g., a few lines of coke in half an hour; a chocolate cheese cake for dessert) while “discounting” the importance of future outcomes (e.g., being broke, fat, and/or increasingly addicted).
So….isn’t that cool? These opposites — whose tension feels creative, productive, maybe even necessary — are both good answers to the same question: how do you free yourself from the fierce and unpredictable tug of the immediate future? Do you trust yourself and thereby project yourself directly into the future you really want, or do you slow down and turn up the vigilance dial by remaining painfully aware of your past?
I could try to collapse this tension by saying something like: trust yourself to be exactly as cautious as you need to be… But some tensions are more creative when left alone.